As the trail dips past the creek and the sun crests the sky, something catches the corner of my eye. I immediately sense I am in trouble; this is how my life will end, presaged by the signpost at the trailhead.
I have a friend who is convinced everyone who lives in Colorado will die in a mountain lion attack. If pushed, she may allow a soul or two to be gobbled up by a bear. But the mountain lion—a.k.a. cougar—will get the, well, lion’s share of us. To her, everyone who ventures out into the wild for a hike, mountain bike or snowshoe adventure is just biding time, simmering away in the cougar’s crock, eventual forest filet for our feral friends.
Prior to a hike, I’ll often call up her various bits of wisdom, such as never hike alone, wear a bell, bring a whistle, carry mace (both the atomized spray and the medieval warring device, I presume). All this in the name of preventing or fending off a predator’s attack. This always has struck me as a bit paranoid, especially considering only 20 deaths by mountain lions have been recorded in all of North America since 1890. Still, this friend is unwaveringly convinced mountain lions pose a real threat to life and limb. And for the time being, hiking alone, I can’t help but share her fear.
Just a quick blur; then nothing. Pupils dilating, palms moist, I slowly pivot, centering my peripheral vision on my attacker.
It always struck me that there are things in life we tend to fear and things we tend to trust, and more often than not we get them confused. To be sure, mountain lion and bear attacks do happen, but are exceedingly uncommon. Ditto plane crashes. While most of us harbor at least a modicum of fear of perishing in a plane crash, it’s nearly impossible to die in such a manner. By one estimate, a modern commercial airline traveler would need to fly continuously for nearly 20,000 years to reach a 50-50 chance of death by plane crash. To put it another way, the chances of dying on your next flight are one in a many million, roughly the same as winning the lottery. People do win the lottery, but you and I probably won’t.
Reaching for my pepper spray, I am struck by the fact I don’t hike with pepper spray. But I am carrying a sizable rock—I picked it up a mile back—and I slowly turn it over in my palm preparing to crush the skull of my ambusher.
Then there are the things we should fear: cars, guns, fishing.
The average U.S. adult has about a one in 6,500 chance of dying in a car accident every year. This means you are infinitely more likely to die on the road than in the air (a one in 430,000 chance of death per annum). Also more likely to do you in are firearms, which are 17 times more likely to kill you than air travel (1 in 25,000). Oddly perilous is fishing. Statistically speaking, there is one death annually for every 1,000 fisherman. Now, growing up in northern Wisconsin I spent the bulk of my formative years in a boat with drunken fishermen. Still, I was surprised to learn fishing is so mortal. However, it turns out commercial—not recreational fishing—is the most dangerous occupation in America.